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NOAA ranks 2019 the 2nd wettest year on record, says big inland floods cost $20B

The year 2019 was the second wettest on record for the U.S., easing droughts in some areas even as severe inland flooding across other regions caused about $20 billion in damages, according to figures the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released Jan. 8.

The contiguous U.S. saw a total of 34.78 inches of precipitation in 2019, 4.84 inches above the average and only 0.18 of an inch less than in 1973, which was the wettest year on record, according to the data provided by NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information.

Scientists have found that climate change will continue to cause extreme rainfall events to occur more often in some locations but exacerbate drought in others so long as humankind fails to curb its production of heat-trapping emissions.

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As of the end of 2019, about 11% of the contiguous U.S. was in drought, including areas in the Southwest, Texas and the Pacific Northwest. But in April 2019, the drought footprint had dwindled to 2.3%, the smallest in the 20-year history of NOAA's drought monitoring reports. One month prior to that, California officially became drought-free for the first time since December 2011, NOAA said.

NOAA also released its list of U.S. natural disasters that each exceeded $1 billion in losses in 2019, of which there were 14 events, just like in 2018. But the total costs of those billion-dollar disasters was significantly lower at $45 billion, with the biggest chunk of the total due to flooding, compared with $92.8 billion in losses in 2018. The cost tallies for flooding excluded inland flood damage related to tropical cyclone events, NOAA clarified.

The agency attributed the lower total cost on tropical cyclones and wildfires having a significantly less financial impact than in 2018 while storms and flooding costs were up in 2019. At least 44 people died due to billion-dollar natural disasters in 2019, with those figures almost evenly distributed across floods, severe storms, and tropical cyclone events.

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The biggest flooding event occurred in the spring when snow accumulated during a bomb cyclone melted due to heavy rain and caused widespread flash flooding down the Midwest and South, particularly in Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

The U.S. had more than twice the number of billion-dollar disasters — 119 events — during the decade that began in 2010 compared to 59 events during the previous decade.

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Average temperature trends on a regional-scale were wide-ranging. While parts of the West, South and much of the Southeast, Ohio Valley, mid-Atlantic, and Northeast experienced above-average temperatures in 2019, below-average temperatures were recorded across the northern Plains. Meanwhile, Alaska had its warmest year on record, the fourth time in six years temperatures have reached new highs. And some islands of Hawaii experienced a near-record to record warm year in 2019.

NOAA expects to release a more detailed report Jan. 14.